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Animal Behaviour expert scoops International Research Award

Posted on 10. October, 2011.

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Dr Anna Wilkinson, editor of Avian Biology Research and our expert in animal behaviour, has been awarded the Physiology Prize at this year’s IG Nobel awards for the study No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise. The awards, which were presented at Harvard University, USA, honour scientific achievements that: ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think’.

Dr Wilkinson’s team studied red-footed tortoises for several months, investigating whether they responded to observing another tortoise yawn by yawning themselves – known as contagious yawning.

Current research, mainly with primates and dogs, suggests that contagious yawning may require empathy and would thus only occur in creatures with high level intelligence.

Dr Wilkinson, a reptile expert, has already challenged some established perceptions of reptilian intelligence but in this study she expected that the behaviour might be controlled by a lower level mechanism than empathy.

She said: “Contagious yawning has always been considered very high level cognitively. We wanted to see whether this was actually the case by testing a species that is not considered to have empathy.

“Initially, we spent six months training one tortoise, Alexandra, to yawn on command.  After running many experiments with the tortoises we found no evidence of contagious yawning at all, and so it does suggest that it may be controlled by a high level mechanism. Though what that exact mechanism is remains unclear.

“This award will contribute significantly to raising the profile of research into tortoise and other reptile behaviour. This is very important as sharing these findings will help inform actions affecting the welfare of the animals and conservation of their habitats.”

The research was done in collaboration with academics from the University of Vienna and Radboud University Nijmegen.

The Ig Nobel awards are produced by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society. The ceremony was webcast live on YouTube and will be available in recorded form at http://www.youtube.com/improbableresearch.

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